For nearly two centuries research in various academic fields has attempted to resolve the enigma of why people kill themselves by focusing on intra-psychic forces (e.g., psychopathology), as well as demographic and social parameters (e.g., age, gender, marital status, socio-economic level). These parameters have been shown to affect suicide, but in complex ways that are not easily understood. The effect of war, the utmost deadly man-made social event, on suicide, the utmost deadly man-made personal event, is a stimulating issue to study in the framework of suicidal behavior.
1.1. Studies on Wars and Suicides: A Brief History
The pioneering work on this topic was conducted in the second half of the 19th century in a mental hospital by Enrico Morselli, an Italian physician. One of his goals was to examine the impact of social influences and psychological factors on suicide in Europe.
Morselli suggested there was a connection between a given political situation and personal reasons for committing suicide and analyzed statistical data on suicides during wars and revolutions. He found that during periods of turbulence the number of suicides decreased compared to the frequency of suicides in peace time. He inferred that the psychological cause which produced this effect was individuals’ preoccupation with their country’s fate during these periods. Morselli published his findings in 1879, in a book that was translated into English two years later [1
Eighteen years later the French sociologist Emile Durkheim published his work on suicide [2
]. He was also interested in the low frequency of suicides during wars and revolutions, and began his analysis with the statistical data and findings presented in Morselli’s studies. Durkheim confirmed these findings with additional data but pointed out that the drop in suicide rate was greater for more severe or prolonged crises, and vice versa
. Durkheim proposed a social theory which relates suicide rates to the individual’s acceptance of societal goals. He postulated two mechanisms: social integration and social regulation. The first refers to the degree of acceptance of shared social convictions. The second refers to the degree of social control imposed by society on an individual's motives and feelings. He claimed that if a society operates well, uniformly and in a coordinated manner, it can monitor the behavior of individuals who contemplate ending their lives. War or profound social crises compel people to join forces to confront an external threat, and the individual focuses on the collective goal and not on himself/herself and his/her suicidal wish. This is in essence the social-integration model.
It is important to note that Durkheim differentiated between an important or crucial war and one which does not elicit a broad consensus. A “Great National War” involves a territorial threat, arouses patriotic feelings and motivates the multitudes to come together to face the threat to their country. Only a war of this kind unites the people and thereby reduces suicide rates. The second type of war does not arouse collective emotions and there should not be a decrease in suicide rates.
The twentieth century witnessed two world wars. The data show that suicide rates in France dropped during both wars [3
], as was the case in Great Britain [4
], and the United States [5
]. The average drop in suicide rates for all nations involved in the First World War was 15.3% for the years 1915–1918, and in the Second World War, 13.5% for the years 1940–1945 (based on [6
Analysis of suicide rates during wars in the twentieth century also confirms Durkheim’s differentiation between types of war. For example, no reduction in suicide rates in the US population was found during the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1959 to 1975, and was waged by the Communist North against the South that was supported heavily by the US. The war did not endanger American territory or its population; hence the lack of decrease in suicide rates.
Certain other findings support the integration model [7
], but a few have not [17
1.3. Israel’s Involvement in War
The wars are described and detailed below in chronological order, especially for those readers who are not familiar with the extensive history of Israel’s conflicts:
War of Independence: The official date of the outbreak of this war is the day the State was founded (14 May 1948), when the Arab armies invaded the new-born country to annihilate it. In fact, blood-letting incidents with Palestinian Arabs began as early as 29 November 1947, when they refused to accept and apply the United Nations resolution on the partition of Western Palestine into two states: Israeli and Arab. Hostilities actually ended in January 1949, but the cease-fire agreements were signed over the course of 1949. This war was the deadliest in the history of Israel, and claimed the lives of one percent of its population at the time (6,000 victims).
Suez: This war broke out as a result of the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptian president Nasser. Until then navigation in the Canal was operated by a company, the majority of whose shares were owned by Britain. Britain and France planned to invade the Canal Zone in order to block nationalization, and informed Israel so that its penetration into the Sinai would serve as an excuse for the planned invasion. The Israeli operation began on 29 October 1956, and the battles ended on 5 November. In March 1957 the Israeli army evacuated the peninsula, and the British and French efforts also failed.
The Six Day War: In November 1966 a defense agreement was signed between Syria and Egypt, and in May 1967 the Syrians claimed that Israel was amassing military forces on its border. Although in fact this was untrue, an intelligence officer in the Soviet Embassy in Cairo confirmed the claim, disregarding the real state of affairs. As a result Egypt transferred military units to the Sinai Peninsula, and Nasser demanded the evacuation of UN Forces from the Sinai while threatening to annihilate Israel. Apprehension gripped the country’s population, reserve forces were called up, and a nerve racking military stand-by began until the outbreak of fighting on 5 June 1967.
The War of Attrition: Because of Egypt’s refusal to begin negotiations with Israel following the Six-Day War there was a period of political stagnation. At the same time it was clear to Egypt that its army was incapable of recapturing its territories now occupied by Israel. Against this backdrop Nasser decided to start a war limited to the Suez Canal line alone, a war which might prompt the US and the USSR to force a settlement upon Israel. Until that time, he hoped to be able to “deplete”, as he phrased it, Israel’s material and mental resources. Although since November 1968 a number of incidents had already taken place between the two countries, on 8 March 1969, artillery from both sides were used for the first time on the Canal front and on a broad scale. This incident marked the start of continuous military activity which lasted for 17 months, and at times included air force battles and commando raids by both parties. The fighting ended on 7 August 1970, with the acceptance of the American initiative for a cease-fire.
The Yom Kippur War: During the years following the end of the Six Day War it was claimed in Israel that Egypt was not capable of carrying out a military offensive or changing the status-quo between the two countries. Various political moves initiated by Egyptian president Sadat to settle the issue of the occupied Egyptian territories did not bear fruit, and he decided to launch a limited war in order to put the issue on the international agenda. Israeli Intelligence failed to interpret the signs of approaching war correctly and Israeli citizens were surprised by the outbreak of war on 6 October 1973.
The First Lebanon War: This war broke out on 5 June 1982, as a reaction to the attempt to murder the Israeli ambassador to Britain, and was conducted against the PLO which had established itself for some years in Lebanon. The war prompted a considerable anti-war movement in Israeli society which claimed that the attempted murder was not carried out by the PLO and that it was used solely as a pretext to attack its bases. This was the most disputed of all the wars of Israel, and during one anti-war demonstration a right-wing extremist murdered a demonstrator and injured a few others. Formally, the hostilities, which were confined to Lebanese territory, ended in August 1982 with the PLO’s exit from Lebanon, but in fact the fighting continued sporadically and resulted in hundreds of victims. About two years later the Israeli Defense Force positioned itself in a security strip in Lebanon, and only withdrew to the international border in May 2000.
The First Intifada: (the word connotes an uprising). In 1982, in the framework of the Peace Settlement, Israel gave back most of the territories occupied during the Six-Day War to Egypt. One dispute remained—where to place the international border in Taba—and towards the end of 1986 both governments negotiated to solve the dispute. Eventually the Egyptian demand prevailed. At the same time, “autonomy talks” with Egypt, whose purpose was to create a new political situation in the West-Bank and Gaza as an interim stage to determine their final status, ran aground. However, the Israeli government did not have the political clout to make decisions on the Palestinian issue due to the standoff between the equal numbers of Left and Right parties in parliament.
Thus, from the point of view of Palestinian society, it did not follow in the footsteps of the (Egyptian) precedent of territories in exchange for political settlement, as the political establishment in Israel did little to resolve the state of affairs. This set the stage for violent protests by Palestinians which began in December 1987 against IDF soldiers in the West-Bank and Gaza, and especially against settlers in these areas as well as civilians within the international borders of the country. The Gulf War which broke out in mid-January 1991 put an end to these acts.
The First Gulf War: This war differed from previous ones by the fact that the threat to the country was located hundreds of kilometers away, following the invasion of USA forces in Iraq after the latter conquered Kuwait. Furthermore the IDF did not take part.
El-Aksa Intifada: This second Palestinian uprising began in 29 September 2000, following the failure of the Camp David talks (July 2000) under the auspices of President Clinton, and one day after opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In January 2005 Mahmud Abbas (the elected Chairman of the Palestinian Authority after Arafat’s death in November 2004) met with PM Sharon (elected in March 2001). Both sides announced an end to the violence.
The Second Gulf War: This war was spearheaded by the US to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and end Saddam Hussein’s support of terrorism, as President Bush put it. The war lasted from 20 March to 1 May 2003, and Israel abstained from any military action.
The Second Lebanon War: The military conflict began on 12 July the 2006, when Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers on its northern border with Lebanon, and two others were wounded, captured, and taken to Lebanon. A cease fire went in effect on 14 August 2006.